What usually pushes me to write the book is I can’t stop thinking about something, and I need other people to go there with me,” Dolen Perkins-Valdez says via Zoom from her home in Washington, D.C. “I’m often looking at the stories that weren’t told, but that really, really need to be told.”
In the case of her new novel, Take My Hand, out from Berkley in April, it was the true story of Mary Alice and Minnie Lee Relf who, in 1973 at ages 12 and 14, were surgically sterilized without their consent in Montgomery, Ala. With the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the family responded with a lawsuit that challenged the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, exposing a vast, federally funded campaign of sterilization of primarily impoverished people. The landmark case led to the requirement for informed consent prior to sterilization procedures.
Perkins-Valdez, an associate professor in the literature department at American University and the current chair of the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, considers herself “somebody who excavates.” Though she was well aware of America’s ugly history of sterilizing women without their consent (as written about in 1998’s Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts, a book she has two copies of), there was something about the Relf sisters she kept coming back to. “The thing that struck me about it was that, even though they’re only really mentioned in passing whenever we talk about this, it was a big deal at the time,” she says. The sisters’ ordeal was heavily covered in the press, and they appeared before a Senate subcommittee led by Sen. Ted Kennedy. “There were so many parts of it, to me, that felt absolutely remarkable. I think some people had heard a little bit about it, but they didn’t know enough. I wanted people to know enough.”
She dug into back issues of the Montgomery Advertiser, one of the local newspapers that had covered the story, and found further impetus to write about it. “The original lawsuit was filed against the clinic, and it was filed against the head nurse who had authorized the sterilization,” she says. “In her defense, she said that it must have been okay to sterilize the girls because all eight nurses who work at the clinic are Black. And I thought, ‘What? What is this all about?’ ” Though Perkins-Valdez could never verify the claim or learn the names of the other nurses, that’s when she knew she was onto something.
“The story is in those little hidden spots,” Perkins-Valdez says. “Something that I see that I can’t find anything else about, that’s where I think the imagination comes in. One of the joys of writing about African American history as a fiction is the absence of archival material,” she says. “I think it can be very frustrating if you’re a historian or if you’re an academic, but for a novelist, to me, those silences in the archives and in the record are freeing and liberating.”
Perkins-Valdez’s debut novel, 2011’s Wench, was a New York Times bestseller for which she won the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. It, too, was based in historical fact, inspired by an Ohio resort where white plantation owners vacationed with their enslaved mistresses. In her 2015 follow-up, Balm, for which she received a DC Commission on the Arts grant, she took on the aftermath of the Civil War, exploring what it means to be free through three characters—a Black man, a Black woman, and a white woman—who attempt to rebuild their lives in Chicago.
Take My Hand, her third novel, follows Civil Townsend, a young Black woman who’s just graduated from nursing school and is living a comfortable, middle-class life with her doctor father and artist mother on Centennial Hill in Montgomery, Ala. What she wants most of all is to make a difference.
Through her job at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic, she’s assigned to two young girls, India and Erica Williams, who are poor and Black. Though at 11 and 13 neither has even kissed a boy, they’re supposed to get Depo-Provera birth control shots—a means of controlling their reproductive freedom, veiled in the guise of healthcare—but Civil stops giving the injections when she learns they may not be safe. Shortly thereafter, she discovers the girls have been taken to the hospital and sterilized. Furious and heartbroken, Civil turns to her father and family friends; they connect her to the lawyer Lou Feldman, who eventually tries the case.
Set in alternating time periods from the perspective of Civil in 1973, when the events occur, and 2016, when she travels to see old colleagues and tries to make sense of what happened, the novel looks at what it means to be an advocate versus a savior. It considers the power we have as individuals to challenge racial inequality and the deep injustices that persist in society.
Though the actual lawsuit played out in D.C., Perkins-Valdez knew she had to set her book in Montgomery, a city with more sites on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail than any other in the country. In 2018, she visited the city.
“I ended up at the parsonage on Centennial Hill, where Martin Luther King Jr. and his young family lived while he was a young pastor there, and when he led the bus boycott,” Perkins-Valdez says. “I just remember looking up the hill and the woman was telling us all about the storied history of Centennial Hill and its Black middle class, and the pride of the people in this neighborhood, and how Alabama State was right there. And I just felt that.”
She also met two key players in the trial: the Relfs’ lawyer, Joseph Levin, and the social worker who reported the sterilization, Jessie Bly. “Bly’s husband was in the military, and she actually went to his commanding officer when she found out about the sterilization because she didn’t know who to turn to,” Perkins-Valdez says. “The commanding officer recommended this young civil rights lawyer in town. And she went to Joe Levin’s office and waited all day until he came back.”
Growing up in Memphis, Tenn., with a dad who had a corporate job at Federal Express and a stay-at-home mom, Perkins-Valdez was always a reader, but didn’t really think about becoming a writer. “That wasn’t anything in my community,” she says. “You became a doctor or lawyer. That was what the smart kids did, and that was what you aspired to.”
After high school Perkins-Valdez went to Harvard, where, as a freshman, she wrote a story and submitted it to a romance magazine. “It was my first time seeing my name, my first publication,” she says. She went on to get an MFA at the University of Memphis, following it up with a PhD in English from George Washington University and then a postdoc at UCLA. All the while, she kept writing. “The practical side of me got the PhD, decided to teach, decided to enter academia,” she says. “The creative side of me, which my parents also encouraged, was my writing.”
Now in her late 40s, Perkins-Valdez has gotten comfortable with combining her practical and creative sides. “I am a historian and a novelist,” she says. “And my goal as a writer is to literally unearth stories that normally people wouldn’t know about. I feel like that’s my calling. I feel like it’s what I do best.”
With Take My Hand, she hopes readers will be encouraged to think carefully about the agency and decision-making of those we try to help. “This is a story about a woman who tries to make right a really grave injustice,” she says. Despite that graveness, she feels it’s a hopeful book: “I believe that we are not the sum of our mistakes. I think we can make things right at any given moment in our lives.”
Jen Doll is the author of the YA novel Unclaimed Baggage (FSG) and the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest (Riverhead).